Content warning: This post contains a photograph from a Westboro Baptist protest which is used as an example of what not to do. It contains language which is offensive.
Over a decade ago, while I yet called myself a Christian, I was onto something good: a realization that homophobic protests and otherwise aggressive “evangelism” were no way to properly show forth the power, love, and, frankly, appeal of Jesus Christ to the world around me.
Borne out of honest and open readings of the Gospels, I came to understand better what Jesus wanted out of his followers, and what I saw didn’t look much like the religion which I had been taught, despite the best intentions of my church leaders and friends.
Take Matthew 5:13–16, for example:
You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men. 14You are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Nor do they light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house. 16Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.New King James Version
I used to really enjoy when I’d read the Bible and have new meaning stick out to me, making passages I had long been familiar with fresh again. This passage, when it was taught or preached to me, was typically used to encourage evangelism — to let our light so shine before man was to go out, knock on doors, hand out tracts, invite strangers to church, and so forth — or the “good fight” against “the world,” such as by protesting gay marriage or shoving creationism into schools.
But the passage has Jesus saying something else about our light, something far more general: Whatever a Christian is supposed to be doing, they are meant to be doing it before the eyes of humanity. That’s the who.
As to the what, the passage says that whatever the Christians do, it’s going to inspire people to praise their God.
Think about that for a moment. The “Gospel truth” of Christian living says that Christians have a responsibility to salt the Earth and to shine upon it in ways that will inspire people.
What Not to Do
Does this inspire?
Not even a little.
The war on the LGBTQ+ community, the war on women’s rights, the endless support for senseless wars, the antagonism toward racial justice movements, and so much more are issues which too many Christians (or “Christians” if you prefer) are wasting their time.
Their actions, however, are not the sort which are going to encourage those outside their groups to start praising their God. They are little more self-congratulatory, self-righteous actions done by people who strive to remain within an echo chamber, fully insulated from opposing viewpoints.1
If you spend your time exercising hate toward others, you are never going to convince them to praise your God, at least not genuinely, til the truth of why that God is being praised is lost after a couple generations.2
Laying Down a Fresh Beat(itude)
The words of Jesus in the passage above are, as you might suspect, part of a larger context. Specifically, it is part of Jesus’ first big lesson to his followers: the Sermon on the Mount.
It’s fashionable now for Christians to push a “God wants you to be happy” message — from the ridiculous prosperity gospels of televangelists to Christian young adults who mistake normal joy for religious bliss. But Jesus’ most important lesson gives a clear rundown of who is “blessed” or happy when following Jesus.
Being peacemakers (v. 9), merciful to others (v. 7), pure (v. 8), meek (v.4), poor in spirit (v. 3), etc. These simple statements are how Christians are to show their light to others.
Indeed, Christians are at their saltiest when they engage the world with love and compassion, not when they assault, slander, and tear down those around them because their choices offend them. Christians shouldn’t have the time for being offended by the world — no matter how crazy it gets out there, it’ll always match what the Bible describes as a fallen world. But it’s that fallen world which Christians are charged with tending to with empathy, compassion, generosity, and care.
When I was a Christian, and even now as an atheist, it breaks my heart that so very many have missed the point.
Of Jesus’ words.
Of what it means to be a Christian.
Of being a beacon of hope to those who need it most.
Imagine the power of a Christianity more concerned with doing good for the sake of doing good rather than busying itself with shallow gospel messages and political activism.
This post was originally published on 2007-12-07. It has been updated for republication. Comments below may reflect the original version of this content.
- This is true of any group which puts hate above compassion, including atheists who take pride in pissing off Christians just for the sake of pissing them off.
- There’s a real and depressing reason why there are historically black churches in America, and it’s not because Christians let their light shine in Africa!